Painting water returned me to my Norwegian heritage, as my great grandmother was a “fishing Sami” living North of the Arctic Circle. The family legend is that she could catch a fish, embroider it on her apron and make a feast for a dozen in an afternoon. Besides inspiring me with memories from living on the lakes and rivers, water, constantly moving and completely abstract, satisfies my desire to paint formally as well as a need to be challenged.
I begin with several of the thousands of digital photographs I make of moving water. I look for images which stimulate my imagination and define the complexity of water in its many forms. I need opaqueness to see the story told by light, water and prevailing winds in isolation from the earth beneath. Urban, glacial, and deep seawater all have this quality, pristine rivers do not. For example, in deep Norwegian fjords, where fresh water mixes with salt from the sea, water appears to have a finite material depth and also to reflect the world outside it.
Some of the shapes I saw in fjord waters were similar to those found in Edvard Munch’s paintings in the Oslo Art Museum. It occurred to me that the towering streaming moonlight and other mutated shapes he used in his work could have come from looking at the local water. Similarly, when looking at the waters of the Pacific Northwest, I recognized forms from traditional Northwest Haida art. The digital camera had managed to capture shapes that were eerily similar to the ovoid eye forms I had seen in the Totem poles I had studied as an art student. Several other shapes repeated in the reflections were also common on boxes, masks and the decorations on carved cedar boats the Indians used to travel from village to village. These indigenous people could see these water forms and use them in their work without necessarily realizing where they came from. When I showed these paintings, many gallery visitors felt that the shapes I painted were imaginary; after spending time with the paintings, they reported seeing these forms in moving water for the first time.
Studying structures inherent in moving water, I wonder how much of art is an outgrowth of visual communication with water and the natural world shaped by its movement. Not only is water central to life, and the source of so much socioeconomic and environmental concern, but it also provides a unique way of connecting with our consciousness. We feel the rhythms of water in our bodies, sleep deeply hearing the music of stream or tides, and absorb water’s characteristic reflective shapes into our visual vocabulary. Most of these effects happen at an unconscious level. I make an active visual space for the mind to inhabit, a lively place that is simultaneously a place of rest. Following moving water, even in a two-dimensional painting, the absorbed mind can move out of conventional time into the spontaneous present. Hopefully, this pleasure will help integrate water into our conscious awareness.